Tag Archives: northwest passage

The Game of Chicken in the Melting Arctic

In 2018 the NATO alliance, joined by Sweden and Finland, held Trident Juncture, its largest exercise since the end of the cold war, in Norway. That involved the first deployment of an American aircraft-carrier in the Arctic Circle for three decades. Western warships have been frequent visitors since. On May 1, 2020 a “surface action group” of two American destroyers, a nuclear submarine, support ship and long-range maritime patrol aircraft, plus a British frigate, practised their submarine hunting skills in the Norwegian Sea.

Such drills are not unusual. But on May 4, 2020 some of those ships broke off and sailed further north into the Barents Sea, along with a third destroyer. Although American and British submarines routinely skulk around the area, to spy on Russian facilities and exercises covertly, surface ships have not done so in a generation. On May 7, 2020 Russia’s navy greeted the unwelcome visitors by announcing that it too would be conducting exercises in the Barents Sea—live-fire ones, in fact. On May 8, 2020… the NATO vessels departed.

It is a significant move. The deployment of destroyers which carry missile-defence systems and land-attack cruise missiles is especially assertive. After all, the area is the heart of Russian naval power, including the country’s submarine-based nuclear weapons. Russia’s Northern Fleet is based at Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula, to the east of Norway’s uppermost fringes.

Western navies are eager to show that covid-19 has not blunted their swords, at a time when America and France have each lost an aircraft-carrier to the virus. But their interest in the high north predates the pandemic. One purpose of the foray into the Barents Sea was “to assert freedom of navigation”, said America’s navy. Russia has been imposing rules on ships that wish to transit the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific that is becoming increasingly navigable as global warming melts ice-sheets . America scoffs at these demands, insisting that foreign warships have the right to pass innocently through territorial waters under the law of the sea. Although last week’s exercise did not enter the NSR, it may hint at a willingness to do so in the future.

On top of that, the Arctic is a growing factor in NATO defence policy. Russia has beefed up its Northern Fleet in recent years…Russian submarine activity is at its highest level since the cold war…Ten subs reportedly surged into the north Atlantic in October 2019  to test whether they could elude detection….Russia’s new subs are quiet and well-armed. As a result, NATO’s “acoustic edge”—its ability to detect subs at longer ranges than Russia—“has narrowed dramatically.”

Russia primarily uses its attack submarines to defend a “bastion”, the area in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk where its own nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarines patrol.  A separate Russian naval force known as the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI, in its Russian acronym) might also target the thicket of cables that cross the Atlantic.

The challenge is a familiar one. For much of the cold war, NATO allies sought to bottle up the Soviet fleet in the Arctic by establishing a picket across the so-called GIUK gap, a transit route between Greenland, Iceland and Britain that was strung with undersea listening posts….The gap is now back in fashion and NATO is reinvesting in anti-submarine capabilities after decades of neglect. America has stepped up flights of P8 submarine hunting aircraft from Iceland, and Britain and Norway are establishing P8 squadrons of their own. The aim is to track and hold at risk Russian nuclear subs as early as possible, because even a single one in the Atlantic could cause problems across a large swathe of ocean.

GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) gap. Image from wikipedia.

But a defensive perimeter may not be enough. A new generation of Russian ship-based missiles could strike NATO ships or territory from far north of the GIUK gap, perhaps even from the safety of home ports. “This technological development represents a dramatically new and challenging threat to NATO forces…. Similar concerns led the Reagan administration to adopt a more offensive naval posture, sending forces above the gap and into the maritime bastion of the Soviet Union. 

Excerpts from Naval Strategy: Northern Fights, Economist, May 16, 2020

Fish, Gas and Minerals: the Arctic

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.

China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37